JINAN, CHINA // Wang Fuming, a 43-year-old from China’s eastern province of Shandong, calls himself a farmer, but he tills no fields and when it comes to slaughtering his herd, all he needs is a vacuum cleaner and a vat of boiling water.
Indeed, some might call Mr Wang mad for doing what he does, or a pest, though that moniker would be best saved for his “livestock” -- all 15 million of them.
Mr Wang rears cockroaches, the Periplaneta americana to be precise, and, it is making him rather rich.
“I make over a million yuan (Dh605,000) a year and we expect to quadruple our output this year, ” says Mr Wang, a softly-spoken man who seems as if he can’t quite believe his luck.
“The next step is to move up the value chain.”
In this case, “the value chain” is the Chinese pharmaceutical industry, which, in recent years, has begun incorporating crushed-up cockroaches into its remedies as other exotic ingredients have become harder to get hold of.
Products that are currently available include lotions for burns and tablets for liver disease, but those promoting the cockroach as a medical ingredient claim these ancient creatures have the ability to cure everything from baldness, to hangovers, to HIV/Aids.
“We don’t exactly know what makes the cockroaches so powerful, but we think, because of how it lives and feeds, it has strong anti-bacterial properties,” says Liu Yusheng an entomologist at Shandong’s Agricultural University and head of the Shandong Insect Grower association.
Mr Wang, however, thinks their potency is derived from their amazing ability to survive. The cockroach first appeared some 350 million years ago and has survived all subsequent mass extinctions. The insects are also known to be able to tolerate high levels of radiation, and survive up to a month without food or 40 minutes without air.
“The cockroach is a living fossil,” says Mr Wang. “Its power is connected to this.”
For this reason, he also eats the roaches – fried in oil and chilli – and also feeds them to his pet dog.
But Mr Wang concedes that it might take a while to bring the general public round to his way of thinking, even though Chinese cooking and traditional medicines often involves ingredients such as chicken feet, deer penis, bear bile and toad secretions.
Public pressure to abandon some of these components because of environmental or humanitarian concerns, including a campaign launched last week by Britain’s royal family calling for an end to illegal wildlife trade, is forcing medical companies to elsewhere look for ingredients.
Hence the boom in cockroach farming.
Numbers are hard to come by because the industry is still unregulated, but Mr Wang alone has helped 30 other farmers set up shop in recent years.
He and Mr Liu’s biggest fear is that some kind of scare or scandal might force the government to crack down on their business.
There was already one minor incident last year, when some 1.5 million roaches escaped from a farm in the eastern province of Jiangsu.
In that case the farmer had been raising the cockroaches in an illegal structure that was bulldozed while he went out for his lunch. He came back to find them crawling around in the rubble and had to call the local authorities to exterminate them.
Mr Wang is careful to make sure he loses none of his precious “herd”. He has a licence to breed bugs and the doors and windows of the long concrete shed where he raises his insects are covered in zip-able mesh, which must be closed at all times.
“They are group animals. If one cockroach finds a way there is a possibility they might all leave” he says.
That would be a disaster for Mr Wang who sells his roaches at 120 yuan a kilo. That’s more than the price of meat or fruit at most Chinese markets.
Each year he raises about 40 million roaches. It takes about five months for an adult to mature and each adult female produces about 15 young.
Once the eggs have been produced, the nymphs can be raised separately, meaning Mr Wang can move in with his vacuum cleaner and suck the adults out.
He then empties the writhing bag into a bucket of boiling water and leaves the bodies to dry in the sun.
He feels no repulsion at the sight or touch of the cockroaches and insists that the American Cockroach, with a shiny chestnut hue and a long slim frame, is far superior to its Asian or Oriental cousins.
But then Mr Wang has spent his life with insects, first, as a boy when he would catch flat black beetles to Chinese apothecaries and later when he began raising the beetles himself.
It was when roaches moved into his beetle farm and began eating their food that Mr Wang decided simply to raise roaches instead.
“One of the companies I was selling beetles to asked where they could buy roaches, so I switched,” he said. “I didn’t even have to buy the eggs.”
His overheads are minimal: the rent of his shed, electricity to run heaters in the winter – the roaches need a constant temperature of about to 30°C to grow quickly – and the fresh vegetables he grinds into pulp for them every day.
His main concern is to make sure the cockroaches are raised in a clean environment, he says, so he has constructed floor-to-ceiling shelves, each divided into four sections. Every section is home to a nest – a collection of corrugated concrete tiles bolted together at inch-wide intervals.
At first glance the shed, which is kept dark, is empty, but when Mr Wang spreads the food on the shelves below the nests, millions of pairs of antennae begin to appear from between the tiles.
A few minutes later it seems as all 15 million cockroaches are out, shovelling bits of cabbage, turnip and carrot into their mandibles.
The noise of them eating is audible and the stench of their droppings is rancid, but somehow, en masse and in their own environment, they do not make one’s skin crawl as much as a single startled cockroach in a kitchen or the bathroom does.